Introduction

It’s an experience we’ve all had. You’re among a group of friends or acquaintances when suddenly someone says something that shocks you: an aside or a flippant comment made in poor taste. But the most disquieting part isn’t the remark itself. It’s the fact that no one else seems the slightest bit taken aback. You look around in vain, hoping for even a flicker of concern or the hint of a cringe. I had one of those moments at a friend’s dinner in a gentrified part of East London one winter evening. The blackcurrant cheesecake was being carefully sliced and the conversation had drifted to the topic of the moment, the credit crunch. Suddenly, one of the hosts tried to raise the mood by throwing in a light-hearted joke. ‘It’s sad that Woolworth’s is closing. Where will all the chavs buy their Christmas presents?’ Now, he was not someone who would ever consider himself to be a bigot. Neither would anyone else present: for, after all, they were all educated and open-minded professionals. Sitting around the table were people from more than one ethnic group. The gender split was fiftyfifty and not everyone was straight. All would have placed themselves somewhere left-of-centre politically. They would have bristled at being labelled a snob. If a stranger had attended that evening and disgraced him or herself by bandying around a word like ‘Paki’ or ‘poof’, they would have found themselves swiftly ejected from the flat.
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But no one flinched at a joke about chavs shopping in Woolies. To the contrary: everybody laughed. I doubt that many would have known that this derogatory term originates from the Romany word for child, ‘chavi’. Neither were they likely to have been among the 100,000 readers of The Little Book of Chavs, an enlightened tome that describes ‘chavs’ as ‘the burgeoning peasant underclass’. If they had picked it up from a bookshop counter for a quick browse, they would have learned that chavs tend to work as supermarket checkout cashiers, fast-food restaurant workers and cleaners. Yet deep down, everyone must have known that ‘chav’ is an insulting word exclusively directed against people who are working class. The ‘joke’ could easily have been rephrased as: ‘It’s sad that Woolworth’s is closing. Where will the ghastly lower classes buy their Christmas presents?’ And yet it wasn’t even what was said that disturbed me the most. It was who said it, and who shared in the laughter. Everyone sitting around that table had a well-paid, professional job. Whether they admitted it or not, they owed their success, above all, to their backgrounds. All grew up in comfortable middle-class homes, generally out in the leafy suburbs. Some were educated in expensive private schools. Most had studied at universities like Oxford, LSE or Bristol. The chances of someone from a working-class background ending up like them were, to say the least, remote. Here I was, witnessing a phenomenon that goes back hundreds of years: the wealthy mocking the less well-off. And it got me thinking. How has hatred of working-class people become so socially acceptable? Privately educated, multi-millionaire comedians dress up as chavs for our amusement in popular sitcoms such as Little Britain. Our newspapers eagerly hunt down horror stories about ‘life among the chavs’ and pass them off as representative of working-class communities. Internet sites such as ‘ChavScum’ brim with venom directed at the chav caricature. It seems as though workingclass people are the one group in society that you can say practically anything about. * * *
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You would be hard pushed to find someone in Britain who hates chavs as much as Richard Hilton. Mr Hilton is the chief executive of Gymbox, one of the trendier additions to London’s flourishing fitness scene. Known for its creatively titled gym classes, Gymbox is unashamedly aimed at fitness freaks with deep pockets, demanding a steep £175 joining fee on top of £72 a month for membership. As Mr Hilton himself explains, Gymbox was launched to tap into the insecurities of its predominantly white-collar professional clientele. ‘Members were asking for self-defence classes, as they were scared living in London,’ he says. In spring 2009, Gymbox unveiled a new addition to its already eclectic range of classes (including Boob Aerobics, Pole Dancing and Bitch Boxing): Chav Fighting. ‘Don’t give moody grunting Chavs an ASBO,’ its website urged, ‘give them a kicking.’ The rest of the promotional spiel did not pull its punches either, in the voice of a vigilante with a good grasp of PR. ‘Forget stealing candy from a baby. We’ll teach you how to take a Bacardi off a hoodie and turn a grunt into a whine. Welcome to Chav Fighting, a place where the punch bags gather dust and the world is put to rights.’ The leaflets were even more candid. ‘Why hone your skills on punch bags and planks of wood when you can deck some Chavs … a world where Bacardi Breezers are your sword and ASBOs are your trophy.’ There were some who felt that glorifying beating people up might be overstepping the mark. When the Advertising Standards Authority was called in, Gymbox responded with technicalities. It was not offensive, they claimed, because ‘nobody in society would admit to being a Chav; it was not a group to which people wanted to belong.’ Amazingly, the ASA cleared Gymbox on the basis that chav-fighting classes ‘would be unlikely to condone or incite violence against particular social groups …’ You would have to speak to Richard Hilton to appreciate the depths of hatred that inspired the class. Defining ‘chavs’ as ‘young Burberryclad street kids,’ he went on to explain:
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They tend to live in England but would probably pronounce it ‘Engerland’. They have trouble articulating themselves and have little ability to spell or write. They love their pit bull dogs as well as their blades. And would happily ‘shank’ you if you accidentally brush past them or look at them in the wrong way. They tend to breed by the age of fifteen and spend most of their days trying to score ‘super-skunk’ or whatever ‘gear’ they can get their sweaty teenage hands on. If they are not institutionalized by twenty-one they are considered pillars of strength in the community or get ‘much respect’ for being lucky.

It is no surprise that, when asked if so-called chavs were getting a hard time in Britain, his response was blunt: ‘No, they deserve it.’ Apparently the class was a hit with gym-goers. Describing it as ‘one of the most popular classes we have ever run,’ he claimed that: ‘Most people related to it and enjoyed it. A few of the PC brigade were offended by it.’ And yet, intriguingly, Mr Hilton does not think of himself as a bigot—far from it. Sexism, racism and homophobia, for example, were ‘completely unacceptable’. An extremely successful businessman, Richard Hilton has tapped into the fear and loathing felt by some middle-class Londoners towards the lower orders. It is a compelling image: sweating City bankers taking out their recession-induced frustrations on semi-bestial poor kids. Welcome to Gymbox, where class war meets personal fitness. It is easy to gasp at Hilton’s unembarrassed hatred, but he has crudely painted a widespread middle-class image of the working-class teenager. Thick. Violent. Criminal. ‘Breeding’ like animals. And, of course, these chavs are not isolated elements: they are, after all, regarded as ‘pillars of strength in the community’. Gymbox isn’t the only British company to have exploited middleclass horror of large swathes of working-class Britain. Activities Abroad is a travel firm offering exotic adventure holidays with price tags often upwards of £2,000: husky safaris in the Canadian wilderness, Finnish log cabin holidays, that sort of thing. Oh, but chavs need not
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apply. In January 2009, the company sent a promotional email to the 24,000 people on its database, quoting a Daily Mail article from 2005 showing that children with ‘middle-class’ names were eight times more likely to pass their GCSEs than those with names like ‘Wayne and Dwayne’. The findings had led them to wonder what sort of names were likely to be found on an Activities Abroad trip. So, the team had a trawl through their database and came up with two lists: one of names you were ‘likely to encounter’ on one of their holidays, and one of those you were not. Alice, Joseph and Charles featured on the first list, but Activities Abroad excursions were a Britney, Chantelle and Dazza-free zone. They concluded that they could legitimately promise ‘Chav-Free Activity Holidays’. Again, not everyone was amused—but the company was unrepentant. ‘I simply feel it is time the middle classes stood up for themselves,’ declared managing director Alistair McLean. ‘Regardless of whether it’s class warfare or not, I make no apology for proclaiming myself to be middle class.’1 When I spoke to Barry Nolan, one of the company’s directors, he was equally defiant. ‘The great indignation came from Guardian readers who were showing false indignation because they don’t live near them,’ he said. ‘It resonated with the sort of people who were likely to be booking holidays with us. It proved to be an overwhelming success with our client base.’ Apparently, the business enjoyed a 44 per cent increase in sales in the aftermath of the furore. Gymbox and Activities Abroad had taken slightly different angles. Gymbox were tapping into middle-class fears that their social inferiors were a violent mob, waiting to knife them to death in some dark alley. Activities Abroad exploited resentment against the cheap flights which allowed working-class people to ‘invade’ the middle-class space of the foreign holiday. ‘You can’t even flee abroad to escape them these days’—that sort of sentiment. But both of them were evidence of just how mainstream middle-class hatred of working-class people is in modern Britain. Chav-bashing has
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become a way of making money because it strikes a chord. This becomes still more obvious when an unrepresentative story in the headlines is used as a convenient hook to ‘prove’ the anti-chav narrative. When ex-convict Raoul Moat went on the run after shooting dead his ex-lover’s partner in July 2010, he became an anti-hero for a minority of some of the country’s most marginalized working-class people. One criminologist, Professor David Wilkinson, argued he was ‘tapping into that dispossessed, white-working-class, masculine mentality, whereby they can’t make their way into the world legitimately so behaving the way that Moat has behaved, as this kind of anti-hero, has, I think, touched a nerve.’ White working-class men had, at a stroke, been reduced to knuckle-dragging thugs lacking legitimate aspirations. The internet hosted a vitriolic free-for-all. Take this comment on the Daily Mail site:
Look around the supermarket, the bus and increasingly now on the road, you will encounter ever-growing numbers of tattooed, loud, foul-mouthed proles, with scummy brats trailing in their wake, who are incapable of acknowledging or even recognising a common courtesy, and who in their own minds can never, ever, be in the wrong about anything. These are the people who are getting sentimental about a vicious killer; they have no values, no morality and are so thick that they are beyond redemption. You are better off just avoiding them.2

This form of class hatred has become an integral, respectable part of modern British culture. It is present in newspapers, TV comedy shows, films, internet forums, social networking sites and everyday conversations. At the heart of the ‘chavs’ phenomenon is an attempt to obscure the reality of the working-class majority. ‘We’re all middle class now’, runs the popular mantra—all except for a feckless, recalcitrant rump of the old working class. Simon Heffer is a strong advocate of this theory. One of the most prominent right-wing journalists in the country, he has
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often argued that ‘something called the respectable working class has almost died out. What sociologists used to call the working class does not now usually work at all, but is sustained by the welfare state.’3 It has given way to what he calls a ‘feral underclass’. When I asked him what he meant by this, he replied: ‘The respectable working class has died out largely for good reason, because it was aspirational, and because society still provided the means of aspiration.’ They had moved up the social ladder because ‘they’ve gone to university, and they’ve got jobs in white-collar trades or professions, and they’ve become middle class.’ Where the millions who remain in manual occupations, or the majority of the population who have not attended a university, fit into all this is an interesting question. According to Heffer, however, there are really two main groups in British society: ‘You don’t have families any more that live in sort of respectable, humble circumstances for generation after generation. They either become clients of the welfare state and become the underclass, or they become middle class.’ This is the model of society as seen through Heffer’s eyes. Nice, middle-class people on one side; an unredeemable detritus on the other (the ‘underclass’ who represent ‘that section of the working class that not only has no ambition, it has no aspiration’); and nothing in between. It bears no relation to how society is actually structured—but then why would it? After all the journalists producing this stuff have little, if any, contact with the people they disparage. Heffer has a thoroughly middle-class background, lives in the country, and sends his kids to Eton. At one point, he admits: ‘I don’t know a great deal about the underclass’, a fact that has not deterred him from repeatedly slagging them off. There are some who defend the use of the word ‘chav’ and claim that, actually, working-class people are not demonized at all; ‘chav’ is simply used to designate anti-social hooligans and thugs. This is questionable. To begin with, no one can doubt that those on the receiving end are exclusively working class. When ‘chav’ first appeared in the Collins
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English Dictionary in 2005, it was defined as ‘a young working-class person who dresses in casual sports clothing’. Since then, its meaning has broadened significantly. One popular myth makes it an acronym for ‘Council Housed And Violent’. Many use it to show their distaste towards working-class people who have embraced consumerism, only to spend their money in supposedly tacky and uncivilized ways rather than with the discreet elegance of the bourgeoisie. Celebrities from working-class backgrounds such as David Beckham, Wayne Rooney or Cheryl Cole, for example, are routinely mocked as chavs. Above all, the term ‘chav’ now encompasses any negative traits associated with working-class people—violence, laziness, teenage pregnancies, racism, drunkenness, and the rest. As Guardian journalist Zoe Williams wrote, ‘ “Chav” might have grabbed the popular imagination by seeming to convey something original—not just scum, friends, but scum in Burberry!—only now it covers so many bases as to be synonymous with “prole” or any word meaning “poor, and therefore worthless”.’4 Even Christopher Howse, a leader writer for the conservative Daily Telegraph, objected that ‘many people use chav as a smokescreen for their hatred of the lower classes … To call people chavs is no better than public schoolboys calling townies “oiks”.’5 ‘Chavs’ are often treated as synonymous with the ‘white working class’. The BBC’s 2008 White season of programmes dedicated to the same class was a classic example, portraying its members as backwardlooking, bigoted and obsessed with race. Indeed, while the ‘working class’ became a taboo concept in the aftermath of Thatcherism, the ‘white working class’ was increasingly spoken about in the early twenty-first century. Because ‘class’ had for so long been a forbidden word within the political establishment, the only inequalities discussed by politicians and the media were racial ones. The white working class had become another marginalized ethnic minority, and this meant that all their concerns were understood solely through the prism of race. They became presented as a lost tribe on the wrong side of history,
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disorientated by multiculturalism and obsessed with defending their identity from the cultural ravages of mass immigration. The rise of the idea of a ‘white working class’ fuelled a new liberal bigotry. It was OK to hate the white working class, because they were themselves a bunch of racist bigots. One defence of the term ‘chav’ points out that ‘Chavs themselves use the word, so what’s the problem?’ They have a point: some young working-class people have even embraced the word as a cultural identity. But the meaning of a word often depends on who is using it. When uttered by a heterosexual, ‘queer’ is clearly deeply homophobic; yet some gay men have proudly appropriated it as an identity. Similarly, although ‘Paki’ is one of the most offensive racist terms a white person can use in Britain, some young Asians use it as a term of endearment among their peers. In 2010, a controversy involving right-wing US shock-jock Dr Laura Schlessinger vividly illustrated this point. After using the word ‘nigger’ on-air eleven times in a conversation with an African-American caller, she attempted to defend herself on the grounds that black comedians and actors used it. In all cases, the meaning of the word changes depending on the speaker. When uttered by a middle-class person, ‘chav’ becomes a term of pure class contempt. Liam Cranley, the son of a factory worker who grew up in a working-class community in Greater Manchester, describes to me his reaction when a middle-class person uses the word: ‘You’re talking about family: you’re talking about my brother, you’re talking about my mum. You’re talking about my friends.’ This book will look at how chav-hate is far from an isolated phenomenon. In part, it is the product of a deeply unequal society. ‘In my view, one of the key effects of greater inequality is to increase feelings of superiority and inferiority in society,’ says Richard Wilkinson, coauthor of the seminal The Spirit Level, a book that effectively demonstrates the link between inequality and a range of social problems. And indeed inequality is much greater today than it has been for most of our history. ‘A widespread inequality is an extremely recent thing for most
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of the world,’ argues the professor of human geography and ‘inequality expert’, Danny Dorling. Demonizing people at the bottom has been a convenient way of justifying an unequal society throughout the ages. After all, in the abstract it would seem irrational that through an accident of birth, some should rise to the top while others remain trapped at the bottom. But what if you are on top because you deserve to be? What if people at the bottom are there because of a lack of skill, talent and determination? Yet it goes deeper than inequality. At the root of the demonization of working-class people is the legacy of a very British class war. Margaret Thatcher’s assumption of power in 1979 marked the beginning of an all-out assault on the pillars of working-class Britain. Its institutions, like trade unions and council housing, were dismantled; its industries, from manufacturing to mining, were trashed; its communities were, in some cases, shattered, never to recover; and its values, like solidarity and collective aspiration, were swept away in favour of rugged individualism. Stripped of their power and no longer seen as a proud identity, the working class was increasingly sneered at, belittled and scapegoated. These ideas have caught on, in part, because of the eviction of working-class people from the world of the media and politics. Politicians, particularly in the Labour Party, once spoke of improving the conditions of working-class people. But today’s consensus is all about escaping the working class. The speeches of politicians are peppered with promises to enlarge the middle class. ‘Aspiration’ has been redefined to mean individual self-enrichment: to scramble up the social ladder and become middle class. Social problems like poverty and unemployment were once understood as injustices that sprang from flaws within capitalism which, at the very least, had to be addressed. Yet today they have become understood as the consequences of personal behaviour, individual defects and even choice. The plight of some working-class people is commonly portrayed as a ‘poverty of ambition’ on their part. It is their individual characteristics, rather than a deeply unequal society rigged in favour of the privileged,
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that is held responsible. In its extreme form, this has even led to a new Social Darwinism. According to the evolutionary psychiatrist Bruce Charlton, ‘Poor people have a lower average IQ than wealthier people … and this means that a much smaller percentage of working-class people than professional-class people will be able to reach the normal entrance requirements of the most selective universities.’6 The chav caricature is set to be at the heart of British politics in the years ahead. After the 2010 general election, a Conservative-led government dominated by millionaires took office with an aggressive programme of cuts, unparalleled since the early 1920s. The global economic crisis that began in 2007 may have been triggered by the greed and incompetence of a wealthy banking elite, yet it was working-class people who were—and are—expected to pay the price. But any attempt to shred the welfare state is fraught with political difficulties, and so the government swiftly resorted to blaming its users. Take Jeremy Hunt, a senior Conservative minister with an estimated wealth of £4.1 million. To justify the slashing of welfare benefits, he argued that long-term claimants had to ‘take responsibility’ for the number of children that they had, and that the state would no longer fund large workless families. In reality, just 3.4 per cent of families in long-term receipt of benefits have four children or more. But Hunt was tapping into the age-old prejudice that the people at the bottom were breeding out of control, as well as conjuring up the tabloid caricature of the slobbish single mother who milks the benefits system by having lots of children. The purpose was clear: to help justify a wider attack on some of the most vulnerable working-class people in the country. The aim of this book is to expose the demonization of working-class people; but it does not set out to demonize the middle class. We are all prisoners of our class, but that does not mean we have to be prisoners of our class prejudices. Similarly, it does not seek to idolize or glorify the working class. What it proposes is to show some of the reality of the working-class majority that has been airbrushed out of existence in favour of the ‘chav’ caricature.
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Above all, this book is not simply calling for a change in people’s attitudes. Class prejudice is part and parcel of a society deeply divided by class. Ultimately it is not the prejudice we need to tackle; it is the fountain from which it springs.

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The Strange Case of Shannon Matthews

Every middle-class person has a dormant class prejudice which needs only a small thing to arouse it … The notion that the working class have been absurdly pampered, hopelessly demoralised by doles, oldage pensions, free education, etc. … is still widely held; it has merely been a little shaken perhaps, by the recent recognition that unemployment does exist. —George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier

Why does the life of one child matter more than another’s? On the face of it, the disappearances of Madeleine McCann in May 2007 and of Shannon Matthews in February 2008 bore striking similarities. Both victims were defenceless little girls. Both vanished without a trace: Madeleine from her bedroom while she slept, Shannon on the way home from a swimming class. Both cases featured tearful televised appeals from the devastated mothers clutching the favourite toys of their beloved daughters, begging for their safe return. It is true that while Madeleine disappeared in an upmarket holiday resort in the Portuguese Algarve, Shannon vanished from the streets of Dewsbury in West Yorkshire. And yet, in both cases, the public was faced with the same incomparable anguish of a mother who had lost her child. But there were more than nine months and a few hundred miles separating the two cases. After a fortnight, British journalists had penned 1,148 stories devoted to Madeleine McCann. The stunning sum of £2.6
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million had been offered as a reward to have her returned to her parents. Prominent donors included the News of the World and the Sun newspapers, Sir Richard Branson, Simon Cowell and J. K. Rowling. The missing infant quickly became a household name. The McCann disappearance was no ordinary media circus. The case became a national trauma. Like some sort of macabre reality TV show, every little detail was beamed into the living rooms of a transfixed British public. News broadcasters sent their most celebrated anchors to report live from the Algarve. Posters with close-ups of her distinctive right eye went up in shop windows across the country, as though somehow the bewildered three-year-old would be found wandering the streets of Dundee or Aberystwyth. Members of Parliament wore yellow ribbons in solidarity. Multinational companies advertised the ‘help find Madeleine’ messages on their websites. The disappearance of one little girl had provoked the most extraordinary outpouring of media interest over such a case in modern times. The result was something approaching mass hysteria. What a contrast with the pitiful response to Shannon Matthews’s disappearance. After two weeks, the case had received a third of the media coverage given to McCann in the same period. There was no rolling news team from Dewsbury; no politicians wearing coloured ribbons; no ‘help find Shannon’ messages flashing up on company websites. The relatively paltry sum of £25,500 (though this later rose to £50,000) had been offered for her discovery, nearly all of which had been put up by the Sun. If money was anything to go by, the life of Madeleine McCann had been deemed fifty times more valuable than that of Shannon Matthews. Why Madeleine? Some commentators were remarkably honest about why, of all the injustices in the world, it was the tragedy of this one little girl that provoked such anguish. ‘This kind of thing doesn’t usually happen to people like us,’ lamented Allison Pearson in the Daily Mail.1 What Pearson meant by people like her was people from comfortable, middle-class backgrounds. Kidnappings, stabbings, murders;
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those are things you almost expected to happen to people living in Peckham or Glasgow. This sort of tragedy was not supposed to happen to folks you might bump into doing the weekly shop at Waitrose. Pearson’s distress at Madeleine’s plight was matched only by her lack of sympathy for the case of Shannon Matthews. And it was for the same reason: the little girl’s background. Even as police were losing hope of finding Shannon alive, Allison Pearson launched into a smug broadside about her family circumstances. ‘Like too many of today’s kids, Shannon Matthews was already a victim of a chaotic domestic situation, inflicted by parents on their innocent children, long before she vanished into the chilly February night.’2 It was Pearson’s only foray into the case. But when the McCanns came under fire for leaving their small children alone in the holiday flat from which Madeleine was abducted, she was one of their strongest defenders. ‘The truth is that the McCanns were not negligent,’ she said decisively. ‘None of us should presume to judge them, for they will judge themselves horribly for the rest of their lives.’3 This middle-class solidarity was shared by India Knight at the more upmarket Times. ‘The resort the McCanns went to belongs to the Mark Warner holiday group, which specialises in providing family-friendly holidays to the middle classes,’ she confided. The joy of such a resort was that they ‘were populated by recognisable types’ where you could sigh in relief and think, ‘Everyone is like us’. They were not places you would expect to meet ‘the kind of people who wallop their weeping kids in Sainsbury’s.’4 These are revealing confessions. These columnists’ undoubtedly sincere grief was not simply caused by the kidnapping of a little girl. They were distressed, basically, because she was middle class. It’s easy to see why the McCann family were so appealing to middleclass journalists. The parents were medical professionals from a smart suburb in Leicestershire. They were regular churchgoers. As a couple they were photogenic, well groomed and bursting with health. When pictured lovingly tending to their twin babies, they represented an almost idealized portrait of middle-class family life. Empathy for their
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plight came naturally to those like Allison Pearson and India Knight, because the McCanns’ lives were similar to their own. The contrast with the Matthews family could not have been greater. Shannon grew up on an impoverished estate in an old industrial northern town. Her mother, Karen, had seven children from relationships with five different men. She did not work, while her partner, Craig Meehan, was a supermarket fishmonger. Ms Matthews appeared to the world in unfashionable clothing, her hair pulled back, her face dour, without make-up and looking strikingly older than her thirty-two years. A slouching Mr Meehan stood next to her in a baseball cap, sweatshirt and tracksuit bottoms. They were definitely not ‘people like us’. The case simply could not provoke the same response among predominantly middle-class journalists. And it did not. Roy Greenslade, the former editor of the Daily Mirror, had no doubts about the dearth of media coverage: ‘Overarching everything is social class.’5 Was this unfair? It’s difficult to explain why else, even in the first week of the Matthews disappearance, newspapers were still opting to give frontpage coverage to possible sightings of Madeleine nine months after she had vanished. Shannon’s background was just too far removed from the experience of journalists who covered such stories. You don’t need to indulge in psychobabble to understand why those who write and broadcast our news were so fixated with ‘Maddie’ while displaying scant interest in a missing girl from a northern backwater. ‘Dewsbury Moor is no Home Counties idyll, nor is it a Portuguese holiday resort,’ commented one journalist at The Times in an effort to explain why there was no media frenzy over Shannon. ‘It is “up North”, it is a bleak mix of pebbledash council blocks and neglected wasteland, and it is populated by some people capable of confirming the worst stereotype and prejudice of the white underclass.’ He could hardly overlook the distress of some neighbours, but felt that others ‘seemed only too ready to treat the drama of a missing child as a sort of exciting game that has relieved the monotony of life on the poverty line.’6
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Such comments open a window into the minds of educated, middleclass hacks. They had stumbled into strange, unfamiliar territory. After all, they knew nobody who had grown up in these circumstances. It’s no surprise that they found it difficult to empathize with them. ‘I suspect in general a lot of national journalists, the people who will have gone up north to cover it, would have been entering an alien world,’ says senior Mirror journalist Kevin Maguire. ‘It’ll have been as alien to them as Kandahar or Timbuktu. They just wouldn’t know that Britain … Because it’s not their Britain, it’s not the bit they live in, they come from.’ This is not baseless speculation. The occasional journalist even confessed as much. Melanie Reid in The Times argued passionately that ‘us douce middle classes’ simply did not understand the case ‘because we are as removed from that kind of poverty as we are from events in Afghanistan. For life among the white working class of Dewsbury looks like a foreign country.’7 The working-class residents of Dewsbury Moor were certainly painfully aware of the reasons behind the lack of interest in Shannon Matthews. They knew that many journalists had nothing but contempt for communities like their own. ‘Listen, we’re not pissed out of our trees or high as a kite all the time, like they associate with council estates,’ local community leader Julie Bushby angrily berated journalists. ‘Ninety per cent of people here work. We’ve all taken money out of [our] own pockets for this.’ Aware of the contrasting response to the disappearance of the girl who had become affectionately known simply as ‘Maddie’, she added: ‘Two children have gone missing, that’s the point. Everyone feels the same when that happens: rich, pauper, whatever. Good luck to Kate McCann. It’s the kids we’re looking for, isn’t it? Not the mothers.’8 But, as it was to turn out, there was a big difference between the two cases. Unlike Madeleine McCann, Shannon was found alive on 14 March 2008. She had been kidnapped, tethered with a rope tied to a roof beam, hidden in a divan bed and drugged to keep her quiet. As far as the
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public was aware at that point, an estranged distant relative had snatched her. It was to be weeks before the true story emerged. Yet the knives were not out for the man believed to be the abductor, an eccentric loner who was the uncle of Karen Matthews’s partner. In the firing line were Karen Matthews and, more importantly, the class she was taken to represent. With Shannon safe, it was no longer considered tasteless to openly lay into her community. The affair became a useful case study into Britain’s indulgence of an amoral class. ‘Her background, a scenario that encompasses the awful, dispiriting and undisciplined face of Britain, should be read as a lesson in failure,’ one columnist wrote in the Birmingham Mail. ‘Karen Matthews, 32 but looking 60, glib hair falling across a greasy face, is the product of a society which rewards fecklessness.’9 Here was an opportunity to score fresh political points. Melanie Phillips is one of Britain’s most notorious self-appointed moral arbiters and an aggressive champion of what she sees as traditional values. To her, the Shannon Matthews case was a gift, vindicating what she had been saying all along. Days after the girl was found, Phillips argued that the affair helped to ‘reveal the existence of an underclass which is a world apart from the lives that most of us lead and the attitudes and social conventions that most of us take for granted.’ In a hysterical tirade, the writer alleged that there were ‘whole communities where committed fathers are so rare that any child who actually has one risks being bullied’, and where ‘boys impregnate two, three, four girls with scarcely a second thought’.10 No evidence was given in support of these allegations. In an increasingly poisonous atmosphere, some of the most extreme prejudices began to erupt into the open. In a debate on the case in March 2008, one Conservative councillor in Kent, John Ward, suggested that: ‘There is an increasingly strong case for compulsory sterilisation of all those who have had a second child—or third, or whatever—while living off state benefits.’ When challenged, Mr Ward was unrepentant
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about calling for the sterilization of ‘professional spongers’ who he claimed ‘breed for greed’.11 Sounds familiar? Local Labour councillor Glyn Griffiths thinks so, telling me it is ‘effectively Nazi eugenics’ which is ‘unacceptable in a Western democracy’. But his horror was not shared by the dozens of Daily Mail readers who bombarded the newspaper with messages in support of the Tory councillor. ‘I fail to see the problem with his comments,’ wrote one, adding: ‘It is NOT a God-given right to mass-produce children.’ ‘What a great idea,’ wrote another well-wisher. ‘Let’s see if the politicians are bold enough to adopt it.’ More practical contributors suggested starting a petition in support, while another came up with the imaginative proposal to lace the entire water supply with an infertility drug and then offer an antidote only to ‘suitable’ parents. ‘No doubt the liberal lefties will be up in arms,’ added this perceptive contribution. ‘After all, they rely on the unemployed “chavs” to vote them into power.’ Yet another expressed their ‘100%’ agreement with Ward’s proposals: ‘The country is sinking under the weight of these sponging bludgers.’12 Of course, class prejudice isn’t always as crude as this. Unhinged though some of these comments are, they undoubtedly reflect an undercurrent of hatred in British society. But this was only the tip of the iceberg. When the dark truth of the Matthews affair came to light, open season was declared on working-class communities like Dewsbury Moor. Over three weeks after her daughter had been found alive, Karen Matthews was dramatically arrested. In one of the most unimaginable crimes a mother could commit, she had kidnapped her own nine-yearold daughter to pocket the reward money, by then totalling £50,000. As if the case couldn’t get any more surreal, Craig Meehan was charged with possessing child porn. ‘Which one of you lot is going to be arrested next?’ mocked the crowd gathered to watch the friends and relatives of Matthews as she appeared in court.13
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Yet there was much more to the strange case of Shannon Matthews than an abusive parent who went to extraordinary lengths to use her own daughter for financial gain. The episode was like a flare, momentarily lighting up a world of class and prejudice in modern Britain. Of course, media intrigue was more than justified by the unique horror of the case and the perverse manner in which Karen Matthews had deceived her community, the police and the nation as a whole. And yet, for a whole host of media commentators and politicians, this was far from an isolated case, involving a depraved individual who shared guilt only with those who were directly complicit. ‘The case seems to confirm many prejudices about the “underclass”,’ reflected one local newspaper.14 It was as though everyone in the country from a similar background was crammed into the dock alongside her. Acting as the nation’s judges, juries and executioners, the tabloids turned on Dewsbury Moor. Local residents were fair game: after all, they had the audacity to live on the same street as Karen Matthews. The estate became a template for similar working-class communities up and down the country. ‘Estate is like a nastier Beirut’ was one thoughtful Sun headline. At first glance, this might appear rather tasteless. After all, Beirut was the epicentre of a particularly horrific civil war in which around a quarter of a million people died, reducing much of the city to rubble. But the Sun didn’t lack evidence for its assertion. ‘As the Press descended, people were pictured walking into the shops in their pyjamas up to MIDDAY … even in the rain.’ The estate ‘is a real-life version of the smash hit Channel 4 series Shameless,’ claimed this nuanced piece, referring to the hit show about the chaotic lives of a few families on a council estate in Manchester. Despite them having been tried and convicted by the Sun, the paper surprisingly found that ‘local families refuse to admit it’.15 Journalists had to be more than a little selective to create this caricature. They didn’t mention the fact that when the media became bored with some scruffy working-class girl vanishing ‘up north’, the local community had compensated by coming together to find her. Scores of
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volunteers had tramped from door to door with leaflets every night of her disappearance, often in pouring rain. They had booked coaches to take teams of people as far afield as Birmingham to hand out notices, while multilingual leaflets had been produced to cater for the area’s large Muslim population. Many of the local people were poor, but they delved deep into their pockets to give some of the little they had to help find Shannon. ‘I personally feel, and local councillors as a whole strongly feel, that the community demonstrated a unique strength,’ reflects local councillor Khizar Iqbal. ‘They all came together. Everyone was really concerned about the welfare of the child and wanted to see that child safe and well. I am very proud of the strength of community that was shown.’ But this sense of a tightly knit working-class community, with limited resources, united behind a common cause, never became part of the Shannon Matthews story. It just didn’t fit in with the Shameless image that the media was cultivating. Nowhere in this coverage was the idea that someone could have the same background as Karen Matthews, or live on the same estate, without being horribly dysfunctional. ‘What I thought was marvellous was some of the people round [Karen Matthews],’ says former government minister Frank Field. ‘One of her friends, when it came out that she had done all of this, said that when she met her, she was going to give her a good slapping and then a hug. I think that, sadly, what the press haven’t done is answer more interesting questions: why is it that some of her neighbours are exemplary parents and why is she an old toe-rag who clearly can’t look after herself, let alone any children?’ This was not a debate the media wanted to have. Far from it. Some journalists went as far as to suggest that people in these sorts of communities were somehow less than human. Take Carole Malone: a highly paid columnist and TV pundit who regularly indulges in angry rants against whoever has miffed her that week. Despite her wealth, she felt qualified to pass judgement on people living on council estates because she used to live ‘next’ to one. It was, she claimed, ‘much like the one in
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Dewsbury Moor. It was full of people like Karen Matthews. People who’d never had jobs, never wanted one, people who expected the state to fund every illegitimate child they had—not to mention their drink, drug and smoking habits.’ Their ‘houses looked like pigsties—dog crap on the floor (trust me, I’ve seen it), putrid carpets, piles of clothes and unwashed dishes everywhere.’ In case her attempt to strip these working-class communities of their humanity was too subtle for the reader, Malone spelt it out in black and white. Matthews, Meehan and Donovan, she declared, ‘belonged to that sub (human) class that now exists in the murkiest, darkest corners of this country’. They were ‘good-for-nothing scroungers who have no morals, no compassion, no sense of responsibility and who are incapable of feeling love or guilt.’16 According to Malone these communities were filthy, subhuman and devoid of the basic emotions. They were crawling with the type of person who would stage the kidnapping of their own daughter for cash, or—as the Daily Mail put it more succinctly —the ‘feral underclass’.17 Imagine that Carole Malone had been talking about people who were black, or Jewish, or even Scottish. There would have been the most almighty uproar, and rightly so. Malone’s career would be over and the Sun would be facing legal action for printing material that incited hatred. But there was no outcry and no angry demands for her sacking. Why? Because the communities she was attacking are regarded as fair game. ‘There is an ugly trend of bashing the less privileged developing in this country and I don’t like it at all,’ pleaded Daily Star columnist Joe Mott at the height of the hysteria over Karen Matthews. ‘Let’s stop using the situation as an excuse to take cheap shots at the working class.’18 His was a lonely voice. As far as his fellow journalists were concerned, Karen Matthews wasn’t a one-off. Britain was teeming with people like her. They had created this impression through blatant manipulation of the facts. ‘As with all these things, there are always some elements of truth in what is being said, but they are extrapolated for effect or
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exaggerated to create a better story from the media’s point of view,’ says Jeremy Dear, leader of the National Union of Journalists. ‘It was almost like—what would you expect of these people?’ Newspapers had directed their fire at ‘her [Karen Matthews’s] background and who she is: her class, more than her as an individual’. Above all, underlying the coverage was the idea that the old working class had given way to a feckless ‘chav’ rump. ‘What was once a working class is now, in some places, an underclass,’ wrote Melanie McDonagh in the Independent. ‘It is a decline that this unfortunate woman seems to embody.’19 This was after all at the heart of the caricature: that we are all middle class, apart from the chav remnants of a decaying working class. The Shannon Matthews affair was just one particularly striking example of the media using an isolated case to reinforce the ‘chav’ caricature: feckless, feral, and undeserving. But it was far from the last. Now that the ball was rolling, the media enthusiastically seized on other cases to confirm this distorted portrayal. The news in November 2008 that a London toddler, initially known only as ‘Baby P’, had died as a result of horrific abuse at the hands of his mother and her partner provided one such case. Beyond the uproar at the systemic failures of the local council’s child-protection agencies, the spotlight again fell on people who lived outside the cosy confines of ‘Middle England’. ‘Many of them will have had mothers with offspring by several different males,’ claimed Bruce Anderson in the Sunday Telegraph. ‘In the African bush, male lions who seize control of the pride often resent and kill the cubs fathered by their predecessors. In the London jungle, similar behaviour is not unknown.’20 The Baby P horror fuelled what the Shannon Matthews affair had sparked in earnest: an attempt to dehumanize people living in poor working-class communities. The few journalists who refrained from swelling the tide of bile were right to complain of ‘cheap shots’ at the working class. That is only half the story. It is rare for the media’s eye to fall on working-class people at
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all; when it does, it is almost always on outlandish individuals such as Karen Matthews, or Alfie Patten—a thirteen-year-old boy wrongly alleged to have fathered a child born in early 2009. Journalists seemed to compete over finding the most gruesome story that could be passed off as representative of what remained of working-class Britain. ‘They will look at the worst estate they can find, and the worst examples they can find,’ objects Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee. ‘They will point their camera at the worst possible workless dysfunctional family and say, “This is working-class life.”’ That’s not to pretend there aren’t people out there with deeply problematic lives, including callous individuals who inflict barbaric abuse on vulnerable children. The point is that they are a very small number of people, and far from representative. ‘Freakish exceptions—such as people with ten children who have never had a job—are eagerly sought out and presented as typical,’ believes Independent journalist Johann Hari. ‘There is a tiny proportion of highly problematic families who live chaotically and can’t look after their children because they weren’t cared for themselves. The number is hugely inflated to present them as paradigmatic of people from poor backgrounds.’ The media manipulation of the Shannon Matthews case was not itself the most worrying part of the story. Politicians recognize a bandwagon when they see one, and they hastily jumped on. Journalists’ use of the Matthews case to caricature the supposed remnants of working-class Britain served a useful political purpose. Both the New Labour leadership and the Conservative Party were determined to radically cut the number of people receiving benefits. The media had helped to create the image of working-class areas degenerating into wholly unemployed communities full of feckless, work-shy, amoral, dirty, sexually debauched and even animal-like individuals. Conservative organs such as the Daily Mail had used the fact that Karen Matthews did not have a job as a reason to attack the welfare state (a bit rich coming from a newspaper which is a fervent champion of ‘stay-at-home’ mothers).21
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The timing was perfect for politicians determined to give the welfare state a good kicking. Former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith, in charge of hashing out Tory social policy and founder of the curiously misnamed Centre for Social Justice, argued that with the revelations of the Matthews saga ‘it is as though a door on to another world has opened slightly and the rest of Britain can peer in.’22 You would think that millions of people were running around council estates, kidnapping their children in a crazed bid to cash in at the expense of the tabloid press. It was against this backdrop that the centre proposed that the ten million or so social housing tenants in Britain ‘should be rewarded for decent behaviour by giving them a stake in their property’. This would help to break down the ‘ghettos’ of British council estates.23 Rewarded for decent behaviour. It’s the sort of language used when dealing with prison inmates, children or pets. A huge portion of Britain’s population —all of them working class—was, in one fell swoop, implicated in Karen Matthews’s actions. To the Conservatives, Karen Matthews had become a convenient political prop. The Tory leader, David Cameron, himself used the affair to call for a drastic overhaul of the welfare state. ‘The verdict last week on Karen Matthews and her vile accomplice is also a verdict on our broken society,’ he argued in the Daily Mail. ‘If only this was a oneoff story.’ As part of the reforms offered in response, Cameron pledged to ‘end the something-for-nothing culture. If you don’t take a reasonable offer of a job, you will lose benefits. No ifs, no buts.’24 Here it was again: a link between Karen Matthews and much larger groups of working-class people. It was a clever political tactic. If the wider British public were led to believe that people who shared her background were capable of the same monstrous behaviour, they would be more likely to support policies directed against them. Tory proposals even contemplated investigating the home lives of the long-term unemployed. Conservative work and pensions spokesperson Chris Grayling justified the plans by arguing that although the Matthews case ‘was a horrendous extreme … it raises the curtain on a
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way of life in some of our most deprived estates, of entire households who have not had any productive life for generations. It’s a world that really, really has to change.’25 If these senior politicians were to be believed, Karen Matthews had demonstrated that there was a great layer of people below middle-class society whose warped lifestyles were effectively subsidized by the welfare state. ‘The attribution of this to the welfare state is just bizarre,’ comments Johann Hari. ‘It’s an inversion of the argument used against the welfare state in the late nineteenth century that the poor were inherently morally indigent and fraudulent, so there was no point giving them help.’ Of course, it is ludicrous to argue that a chronically dysfunctional individual like Karen Matthews was representative of working-class benefit recipients or council tenants, let alone the wider community. Those politicians who argued that she was failed to mention the horror felt by the community at her daughter’s disappearance, and the way they united with such determination to find her. Both journalists and politicians had used the reprehensible actions of one woman to demonize working-class people. Yet why did they consider the case to be such an insight into what life was like for so many communities outside the middle-class world? They claimed that the whole affair was a revealing snapshot of British society: and, in some ways, they had a point. But the case said a lot more about the people reporting it than about those they were targeting. Imagine you’re a journalist from a middle-class background. You grow up in a nice middle-class town or suburb. You go to a private school and make friends with people from the same background. You end up at a good university with an overwhelmingly middle-class intake. When you finally land a job in the media, you once again find yourself surrounded by people who were shaped by more or less the same circumstances. How are you going to have the faintest clue about people who live in a place like Dewsbury Moor?
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The Mirror’s Kevin Maguire has no doubt that the background of media hacks has more than a little to do with the way they report on communities like Dewsbury Moor. ‘I think it’s bound to. You won’t empathize or sympathize or understand and you might only bump into these people when they sell you a coffee or clean your house.’ Increasingly, the lives of journalists have become divorced from those of the rest of us. ‘I can’t think of a national newspaper editor with school-age kids who has them in a state school,’ he reflects. ‘On top of that, most journalists at those levels are given private medical insurance. So you’re kind of taken out of everyday life.’ Kevin Maguire is one of a tiny handful of senior journalists from working-class backgrounds. You will struggle to find anyone writing or broadcasting news who grew up somewhere even remotely like the Dewsbury Moor estate. Over half of the top hundred journalists were educated at a private school, a figure that is even higher than it was two decades ago. In stark contrast, only one in fourteen children in Britain share this background.26 More than anything, it is this ignorance of working-class life that explains how Karen Matthews became a template for people living in working-class communities. ‘Perhaps it’s because we’re all middle class that we tut at the tragic transition of aspirational working class to feckless, feral underclass, and sneer at the brainless blobs of lard who spend their days on leatherette sofas in front of plasma TVs, chewing the deep-fried cud over Jeremy Kyle,’ speculated commentator Christina Patterson. ‘We’ve got a word for them too: “Chavs”.’27 One effect of this is a belief that society has become dominated by a large middle class, increasingly subject to further internal hierarchies, with the rest consisting of a working class that has degenerated into the ‘chav’ caricature. Johann Hari often asked other media people what they thought the median income in Britain was. The reply was always dramatically above the actual figure. One senior editor estimated it at £80,000. This absurd figure is nearly four times higher than the true amount of £21,000. ‘Of course if you never leave Zone One, if you’ve
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never met anyone from an estate, never been to one, then you live in a world of feverish fantasy.’ Unlike many of his colleagues, Hari thought that it was nonsense to think of Karen Matthews as anything other than a ‘pitiable freak’. The journalists who reported on the Shannon Matthews affair are almost all from the same background, and hopelessly out of touch with ordinary life. So how has this happened? The reality is that it is more and more difficult for people from working-class backgrounds to get their foot in the door of newspapers or broadcasters. If more people in the media had grown up in communities like Dewsbury Moor, we might expect coverage to be more balanced when dealing with these issues. The odds of that happening as things stand are somewhere approaching nil. NUJ leader Jeremy Dear thinks the reason for this is simple. Increasingly, wannabe journalists have to pay for their own training, which usually means having at least one degree. That leaves a huge amount of debt on their shoulders when starting out in a profession with notoriously low wages for junior staff. ‘The only people who can do that are those with financial support,’ he says. ‘That is, those whose parents can support them, which means the nature of those going into journalism has changed dramatically.’ The problem is not just the shortage of working-class people in journalism. Most newspapers discarded the old labour correspondents as trade union power declined precipitously. Local government journalists, who at least gave some account of ordinary life across the country, have also vanished. Over the past few years, regional newspapers, which traditionally reported on daily life in local communities, have either closed down or faced severe cuts. With the lives of ordinary people purged from the media, extreme cases such as Karen Matthews practically had a monopoly on the reporting of working-class life. ‘Working-class people have completely ceased to exist as far as the media, popular culture and politicians are concerned,’ argues Polly Toynbee. ‘All that exists are nice middle-class people—nice people who own their own home, who the Daily Mail like. Then there are very
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bad people. You don’t get much popular imagery of ordinary people of a neutral, let alone a positive kind.’ We’ve seen that prominent politicians manipulated the media-driven frenzy to make political points. Like those who write and broadcast our news, the corridors of political power are dominated by people from one particular background. ‘The House of Commons isn’t representative, it doesn’t reflect the country as a whole,’ says Kevin Maguire. ‘It’s over-representative of lawyers, journalists-as-politicians, various professions, lecturers in particular … there are few people who worked in call centres, or been in factories, or been council officials lower down.’ It’s true to say that MPs aren’t exactly representative of the sort of people who live on most of our streets. Those sitting on Parliament’s green benches are over four times more likely to have gone to private school than the rest of us. Among Conservative MPs, a startling three out of every five have attended a private school.28 A good chunk of the political elite were schooled at the prestigious Eton College alone, including Tory leader David Cameron and nineteen other Conservative MPs. There was once a tradition, particularly on the Labour benches, of MPs who had started off working in factories and mines. Those days are long gone. The number of politicians from those backgrounds is small, and shrinks with every election. Fewer than one in twenty MPs started out as manual workers, a number that has halved since 1987, despite the fact that that was a Conservative-dominated Parliament. On the other hand, a startling two-thirds had a professional job or worked in business before arriving in Parliament. Back in 1996, Labour’s then deputy leader John Prescott echoed the Blairite mantra to claim that ‘we’re all middle-class now’, a remark that would perhaps be more fitting if he had been talking about his fellow politicians. If these MPs do have an understanding of life in places like Dewsbury Moor, one wonders where they got it. ‘The people who came here previously had been involved in many campaigns, had been involved in fighting for their communities, had been involved perhaps in sacrificing significant amounts personally to be involved in politics
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and to try and change the world,’ argues Labour backbencher Katy Clark. ‘That perhaps is far less true now.’ Unlike senior Conservative MPs, she did not see Karen Matthews as representative of a wider group of people. ‘I think Karen Matthews represented Karen Matthews.’ Just because a politician has a privileged background, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they will lack sympathy for those who are less fortunate. Nonetheless, the odds of them understanding the realities of working-class communities are, unavoidably, considerably lower. After all, how could someone like Prime Minister David Cameron even begin to understand a community like Dewsbury Moor? Even by the standards of most Conservative MPs, he’s not exactly the sort of bloke you’d bump into in your local pub. He counts King William IV as an ancestor, his dad is a wealthy stockbroker, and his family have been making a killing in finance for decades. His wife, a senior director of one luxury goods business and owner of another, is the daughter of a major landowner and happens to be a descendant of King Charles II. Now, it’s true that as Leader of the Opposition Cameron famously hit back at those who challenged his privileged upbringing with the quip: ‘It’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re going.’29 All well and good, but doesn’t where he’s going have an awful lot to do with where he’s from? His belief that the Karen Matthews case is broadly representative makes sense when you look at his feelings towards people who share her background. When his messy daughter once emerged at a social gathering in his £2 million Notting Hill home, he reportedly groaned: ‘You look like you’ve fallen out of a council flat.’30 He’s also admitted to regularly watching the TV comedy Shameless, which, as we’ve seen, has been compared to Dewsbury Moor by the tabloid press.31 ‘A lot of working-class people laugh at Shameless,’ Kevin Maguire notes, ‘but I sort of think they’re laughing at it slightly differently than Cameron, who probably sees it as a drama-documentary.’ One of the Conservatives’ few working-class MPs, Junior Transport Minister Mike Penning, admits that the lack of politicians from workingclass backgrounds impinges on their ability to relate to people in
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communities like Dewsbury Moor. ‘It’s physically impossible for someone to have an understanding of and empathy with the problems that some are having: say, for instance, at the moment, there’s a lot of people being made redundant. You don’t know what that’s like unless you’ve been made redundant.’ Part of the problem, he argues, was the difficulties getting into the political world. ‘It is without doubt, no matter what political party you come from, extortionately difficult to get into this great House unless you have some kind of leg-up the greasy pole.’ The fact that the British elite is stacked full of people from middleand upper-middle-class backgrounds helps to explain a certain double standard at work. Crimes committed by the poor will be seen as an indictment of anyone from a similar background. The same cannot be said for crimes where a middle-class individual is culpable. The massmurdering GP Harold Shipman might have gone down as a monster, but did anyone argue that his case shone a light on life in middle-class Britain? Where were the outraged tabloid headlines and politicians’ sound-bites about middle-class communities that ‘really, really have to change’? And although cases such as the disappearance of Shannon Matthews are used as launch pads for attacks on so-called spongers, the wealthy do not receive anywhere near the same level of attention from the media or politicians. Welfare fraud is estimated to cost the Treasury around £1 billion a year. But, as detailed investigations by chartered accountant Richard Murphy have found, £70 billion is lost through tax evasion every year—that is, seventy times more. If anything, ‘welfare evasion’ is more of a problem, with billions of pounds worth of tax credits left unclaimed every year. The cruel irony is that poor people who live in communities like Dewsbury Moor actually pay more in tax as a proportion of their wage packets than many of the rich journalists and politicians who attack them. But where is the outcry over middleclass spongers? Given the media’s distorted coverage, it’s hardly surprising that people significantly underestimate the cost of tax avoidance and overestimate the cost of benefit fraud.32
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Leading politicians and journalists had no interest in allowing the Shannon Matthews affair to go down in history as just another example of the capacity of some individuals for cruelty. A mother’s grotesque ploy to use her vulnerable daughter for financial gain was deliberately inflated into something much greater, for the purposes of journalists and politicians determined to prove that traditional working-class communities had decayed into a morally depraved, work-shy rump. But that’s not to say that there are no wider lessons to be drawn from the case. On the contrary, it speaks volumes about class in Britain today. It would be dishonest to say that communities like Dewsbury Moor don’t have their fair share of problems, even if they’re not full of abusive unemployed parents running amok. The important question is, who is to blame: the communities, or the policies of successive governments over the last three decades? And how has Britain become so polarized that derision and contempt for ‘chavs’ has become so deeply ingrained in our society? Neither the journalists nor the politicians who manipulated the affair of Shannon Matthews allowed pesky facts to get into the way of their wild claims. That the Matthews household was not a workless family— Craig Meehan had a job, after all—or that accomplice Michael Donovan was a computer programmer did not trouble right-wing pundits and politicians. ‘I remember reading one comment about how many people in Southern England, maybe more middle-class England, were fascinated by what they saw as northern, subhuman, deprived communities,’ remarks local Dewsbury vicar Reverend Simon Pitcher. ‘I think there was an element of media porn. The whole of Dewsbury was portrayed as being particularly difficult and, in reality, it’s not like that.’ His statement could be applied to all communities suffering from poverty. In contrast to the sweeping assertions of British politicians and commentators, government figures show that nearly six out of every ten households in poverty had at least one adult in work.33
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But this coverage was part of an effort to portray our society as divided into Middle England on the one hand and a pack of anti-social chavs living in places like Dewsbury Moor on the other. It’s a myth. You wouldn’t know it from the media coverage, but most of us think of ourselves as working class. As a poll published in October 2007 revealed, that’s how over half the population described themselves. This figure has remained more or less steady since the 1960s.34 Of course, self-identification is an ambiguous, subjective business and people of all classes might, for various reasons, mischaracterize their place in the social pecking order. And yet the figure has an uncanny relation to the facts. In today’s Britain the number of people employed in blue-collar manual and white-collar routine clerical jobs represents over half the workforce, more than twenty-eight million workers.35 We’re a nation of secretaries, shop assistants and admin employees. The lives of this majority are virtually ignored by journalists and politicians. Needless to say, over half the population has nothing in common with Karen Matthews. And yet the rare appearances made by working-class people on the public stage are more likely than not to be stories about hate figures—however legitimate—such as Karen Matthews. Were politicians and journalists wrong to argue that communities such as Dewsbury Moor had particular social problems that set them apart from the rest of Britain? As with most stereotypes, there are grains of truth in the ‘chav’ caricature. It is undeniable that many working-class communities across Britain suffer from high levels of unemployment. They do have relatively large numbers of benefit recipients, and crime levels are high. Yet the blame has been directed at the victims rather than at the policies promoted by successive governments over recent decades. Dewsbury Moor is a good example. The ward finds itself in the top 10 per cent for overall deprivation and child poverty. As we have seen with the bile spewed out by journalists during the Shannon Matthews affair, the detractors argue that this is largely due to the fecklessness
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of the people who live there. They’re wrong. Governments have effectively socially engineered these working-class communities to have the problems that they have. We’ve come a long way since Labour’s Aneurin Bevan founded modern council housing in the aftermath of World War II. Above all, his aim was to create mixed communities. He reasoned that this would help people from different backgrounds to understand one another, breaking down the sort of prejudices we see today directed at chavs. ‘It is entirely undesirable that on modern housing estates only one type of citizen should live,’ he argued. ‘If we are to enable citizens to lead a full life, if they are each to be aware of the problems of their neighbours, then they should all be drawn from different sectors of the community. We should try to introduce what was always the lovely feature of English and Welsh villages, where the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the farm labourer all lived in the same street.’36 This laudable principle has been fatally undermined by policies introduced in the Thatcher era which New Labour have been happy to keep in place. Council estates like Dewsbury Moor now display the exact opposite result to that originally intended by Bevan. As the 1970s drew to a close, before the Thatcher government launched the ‘rightto-buy’ scheme, more than two in five of us lived in council housing. Today the figure is nearer one in ten, with tenants of housing associations and co-operatives representing half as many again.37 Councils were prevented from building new homes and, over the last eleven years, the party of Bevan has refused to invest money in the remaining houses under local authority control. As council housing collapsed, remaining stock was prioritized for those most in need. ‘New tenants coming in, almost exclusively in order to meet stringent criteria, will either be single parents with dependent children, [or] people out of institutions including prisons,’ explained the late Alan Walter, a lifelong council tenant and chairman of the pressure group Defend Council Housing. ‘And therefore they are, almost by definition, those without work.’ Many—but not all—of those who remained in council housing were
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too poor to take advantage of the right-to-buy scheme. ‘A growing number of people who can afford to get out of social housing have done so, and it’s then sold off to someone else not necessarily in a respectable family,’ Polly Toynbee argues. ‘The more people absent themselves from living in a council estate, the worse the divide gets: after all, there’s virtually no rented sector.’ The problems people faced had nothing to do with the fact they lived in council housing, and everything to do with the fact that only the most deprived were eligible to live on estates. The unsurprising result is that over two-thirds of those living in social housing belong to the poorest two-fifths of the population. Nearly half of social housing is located in the poorest fifth of neighbourhoods.38 Things have certainly changed compared to thirty years ago, when a staggering 20 per cent of the richest tenth of the population lived in social housing.39 If places like Dewsbury Moor have major social problems, it’s because they have been made to have them. Because of the sheer concentration of Britain’s poorest living in social housing, council estates easily become associated with the socalled ‘chavs’. While it is true that about half of Britain’s poor own their homes, they too tend to live on estates. The increasing transformation of council estates into social dumping grounds has provided much ammunition for the theory that Britain is divided into middle-class society and a working-class chav rump, suffering from an epidemic of self-inflicted problems. Government housing policies are not the only cause of the social disadvantages affecting working-class areas. Thatcherism unleashed a tsunami of de-industrialization, decimating communities such as Dewsbury Moor. Manufacturing jobs have collapsed over the last thirty years. When Thatcher came to power in 1979, over seven million of us earned a living in manufacturing. Thirty years later, this was true for less than half as many, a mere 2.83 million—not least because factories had relocated to developing countries where workers cost less. The town of Dewsbury was once home to a thriving textile industry. Over the past three decades, these jobs have all but disappeared. At the
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bottom of the street where Karen Matthews once lived are dozens of disused lock-ups, including abandoned textile mills and expansive industrial estates. ‘This was known as the heavy woollen area of West Yorkshire. There were also lots of engineering and manufacturing jobs,’ Reverend Pitcher explains. ‘Those jobs have all gone; there’s virtually no manufacturing industry. So what do people do? What choices do people have for work? People depend on the big supermarkets for their jobs. There’s no other place to work for any significant job.’ The impact on local people has been devastating. ‘This has had a destabilizing effect on the community—the sense of community we once had has evaporated.’ The lack of large manufacturing firms made it very difficult for those who had not succeeded in education to find a job. The impact of this industrial collapse can be seen on the Matthews family. Both the grandparents and parents worked in local industry, particularly in textiles. And yet, as Karen Matthews’s mother put it: ‘The town has changed now. The textiles have gone and there aren’t the same jobs as there were.’40 Manufacturing in areas like Dewsbury Moor used to provide secure, relatively well-paid, highly unionized jobs that were passed down from generation to generation. ‘The decline of the British manufacturing and industrial base has decimated communities up and down the country,’ says Labour MP Katy Clark. ‘If you just talk about the constituency I represent [North Ayrshire and Arran], we used to have large-scale industrial and manufacturing industries which employed on occasion tens of thousands of people. All those jobs have gone and in their place, low-paid usually service-sector and public-sector jobs have come.’ Industry was the linchpin of local communities. Its sudden disappearance from places like Dewsbury Moor caused massive unemployment during the 1980s. Today, the official unemployment rate in the area is only a percentage point above the national average. But this statistic is deeply deceptive. If you exclude people engaged in full-time study, well over a quarter of the people in Dewsbury West are classed as ‘economically inactive’. That’s around 10 per cent over the average. The
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the case of shannon matthews

main reason is that many of those who lost their jobs were officially classified as ill or incapacitated, in a process common to all the areas that, like Dewsbury, lost their industries in the 1980s and 1990s. It is difficult to argue that this is because they are lazy scroungers. In late 2008, the government announced plans to push 3.5 million benefit recipients into jobs. At the same time they estimated that there were only around half a million vacancies. That’s the lowest on record. People are out of work in places like Dewsbury Moor quite simply because there are not enough jobs to go around. It is clear that the ‘chav’ caricature epitomized by Karen Matthews has sunk deep roots into British society. More and more of us are choosing to believe that the victims of social problems are, in large part, responsible for causing them. Three-quarters of us, for example, thought that the gap between high and low incomes was ‘too large’ in 2006—but only slightly over a third supported spending more on welfare benefits for the poor. While nearly half of us felt that an unemployed couple should be classed as ‘hard up’ in 1986, that level declined to just over a third by 2005. Even more strikingly, while only 19 per cent felt that poverty was caused by laziness or a lack of willpower in 1986, the figure had increased to 27 per cent twenty years later.41 What is remarkable about these figures is that they have come at a time when inequality has grown as sharply as social mobility has declined. The Gini coefficient—used to measure overall income inequality in Britain—was rated as 26 in 1979. Today it has risen to 39. It is not simply that this growing social division renders those at the top more likely to be ignorant of how other people live their lives. As we have seen, demonizing the less well-off also makes it easier to justify an unprecedented and growing level of social inequality. After all, to admit that some people are poorer than others because of the social injustice inherent in our society would require government action. Claiming that people are largely responsible for their circumstances facilitates the opposite conclusion. ‘We’re developing a culture where it’s acceptable and indeed normal to speak of the white working class in
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very dehumanized language, and this is a common symptom of a highly unequal society,’ Johann Hari warns. ‘If you go to South Africa or Venezuela—or other Latin American countries with a tiny wealthy elite—it’s common for them to speak of the poor as if they’re not quite normal or somehow subhuman.’ The Shannon Matthews affair casts a disquieting light on modern Britain. It didn’t spark contempt for working-class people. It simply exposed prejudices that have become rampant in our society. The hysteria around the case shows that it is possible to say practically anything about those caricatured as chavs. Somehow a huge part of Britain has been made complicit in crimes they had nothing to do with. With neither middle-class politicians nor journalists showing any willingness to give a platform to the reality of working-class communities, the pitifully dysfunctional lives of a tiny minority of individuals have been presented as a case study of modern life outside so-called Middle England. ‘Chavs’ have become more despised than practically any other group of people. Where has this hatred come from? There is certainly nothing new about venting spite against those at the bottom of the pile. Theologians of the seventeenth century deplored the ‘indiscreet and misguided charity’ extended to poor people who were ‘the very scabs, and filth, and vermin of the Common-wealth’.42 In the nineteenth century, the harsh Poor Laws threw the destitute and unemployed into workhouses where they toiled in hellish conditions, and commentators debated whether the respectable working class was giving way to a debauched rump they labelled the ‘residuum’. The rise of eugenics in the early twentieth century led even some who considered themselves left-wing to argue for the sterilization of the ‘unfit’ poor—or even for their extermination. Chav-bashing draws on a long, ignoble tradition of class hatred. But it cannot be understood without looking at more recent events. Above all, it is the bastard child of a very British class war.
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